What even is the Demon Core?

The demon core was a spherical 6.2-kilogram (14 lb) subcritical mass of plutonium 89 millimetres (3.5 in) in diameter, manufactured during World War II by the United States nuclear weapon development effort, the Manhattan Project, as a fissile core for an early atomic bomb.

First incident

The core, assembled, was designed to be at “−5 cents”. In this state there is only a small safety margin against extraneous factors that might increase reactivity, causing the core to become supercritical, and then prompt critical, a brief state of rapid energy increase. These factors are not common in the environment; they are circumstances like the compression of the solid metallic core (which would eventually be the method used to explode the bomb), the addition of more nuclear material, or provision of an external reflector which would reflect outbound neutrons back into the core. The experiments conducted at Los Alamos leading to the two fatal accidents were designed to guarantee that the core was indeed close to the critical point by arranging such reflectors and seeing how much neutron reflection was required to approach supercriticality. On August 21, 1945, the plutonium core produced a burst of neutron radiation that led to physicist Harry Daghlian’s death. Daghlian made a mistake while performing neutron reflector experiments on the core. He was working alone; a security guard, Private Robert J. Hemmerly, was seated at a desk 10 to 12 feet (3 to 4 m) away. The core was placed within a stack of neutron-reflective tungsten carbide bricks and the addition of each brick moved the assembly closer to criticality. While attempting to stack another brick around the assembly, Daghlian accidentally dropped it onto the core and thereby caused the core to go well into supercriticality, a self-sustaining critical chain reaction. He quickly moved the brick off the assembly, but received a fatal dose of radiation. He died 25 days later from acute radiation poisoning.

The second incident

On May 21, 1946, physicist Louis Slotin and seven other personnel were in a Los Alamos laboratory conducting another experiment to verify the closeness of the core to criticality by the positioning of neutron reflectors. Slotin, who was leaving Los Alamos, was showing the technique to Alvin C. Graves, who would use it in a final test before the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests scheduled a month later at Bikini Atoll. It required the operator to place two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around the core to be tested and manually lower the top reflector over the core using a thumb hole on the top. As the reflectors were manually moved closer and farther away from each other, scintillation counters measured the relative activity from the core. The experimenter needed to maintain a slight separation between the reflector halves in order to stay below criticality. The standard protocol was to use shims between the halves, as allowing them to close completely could result in the instantaneous formation of a critical mass and a lethal power excursion.